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The story centers around Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), a young man who leaves college to join the army for combat duty during the Vietnam War in 1967. When he gets there, he finds that his idealism starts to fade.
He ends up in an inner battle between his two sergeants, Staff Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) and Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe). Barnes believes nearby villagers are harboring Viet Cong soldiers while Elias has a more sympathetic view of the local villagers. This conflict ends up putting the soldiers against each other as well as the enemy.
Platoon (1986) was a big step in Oliver Stone's career. In the early years of his career, he had already made a name for himself after winning an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay with Midnight Express (1978). In the early 80s, he was best known for writing screenplays for cult classics like Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Scarface (1983). He was also known for his directorial efforts of low-budget horror movies. His first films were Seizure (1974) and The Hand (1981).
1986 was a big year for Stone to branch out of that. He did so by releasing two great films: Salvador and Platoon. Both films have similar stories, but they are different films because of the settings and conflict.
They both center around a protagonist entering a horrific war and coming out with a completely different mindset. While Salvador was about a brunt-up reporter having his heart changed during the Salvadoran Civil War, Platoon follows an idealistic army recruit in conflict with himself and squad leaders in a battle of morality during the Vietnam War. Salvador may be a great movie to some people, but for me, Platoon is a masterpiece.
The Film's Endurance of War
What makes this movie so iconic is how it explores the horrors of the Vietnam War. It doesn't sugarcoat the subject matter or glorify it in a way to make it entertaining. Platoon shows the Vietnam War as dangerous and barbaric. It takes an experienced person to present the war from a soldier's point of view. And given that Stone was a Vietnam veteran himself, it feels like it's one of his most personal films ever made.
This movie has moments that are hard to watch at times. It's raw and unflinching in its depiction of violence committed by the soldiers towards the Vietnamese people. They are terrified of the soldiers because most of them take pride in killing anyone associated with the enemy. A prime example of this is the dance scene.
Charlie Sheen gives one of the best performances in his career. He goes through the most changes in the film and is enduring in his portrayal of an army recruit getting a reality check of what war is really like when you get on the battlefield. It’s hard to think of him as a dramatic actor now because of his fame in Two and a Half Men and Anger Management. Platoon shows that he can be good in serious movies.
But the true performances that make this movie enduring are William Dafoe and Tom Berenger as Sergeant Elis and Sergeant Barnes. Both of them excel at greatness in their Oscar-nominated roles as two sides of soldiers during a war.
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One represents compassion and understanding through Elias, who uses drugs to calm himself down after an intense battle. The other represents corruption and darkness through Barnes, whose scars are symbolic of being consumed by violence and death.
Platoon is also a visually stunning movie right down to a technical aspect. This movie was filmed on the island of Luzon in the Philippines to give it that feel of being in the Vietnam jungle. That's a sign of the filmmakers being committed to the project.
Robert Richardson's cinematography in this film is stunning as this was his first Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. And it shows because his framing of each scene never feels out of place in the film. The establishing shots of each location in the jungle feel smooth and natural throughout the movie.
The editing is also superb. Whenever a battle scene starts to happen, it doesn't hide the bad cuts by being choppy. It knows when to cut and when to not cut in each scene. Where the editing shines is the New Year's Day Battle scene. It's chaotic and mad, but it serves a purpose within the story.
Conclusion: An Iconic War Film
Platoon is a classic war movie. It has already stood the test of time during its release. The film has gained universal acclaim from critics and has won multiple awards. It won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. It has earned its place on the AFI Lists of Best Movies.
- #83 of AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies
- #72 of 100 Most Thrilling American Films
It is deserving of all its accolades and it's a masterclass of great filmmaking.
Theodore Turnquest II (author) from Lakeland, Florida on March 14, 2021:
Andrea Sciambarella from Manchester, UK on March 14, 2021:
Great take on a classic! I completely agree with you regarding the characters of Sergeant Elis and Sergeant Barnes. Their father figure dichotomy just adds to how psychologically horrific this rendition of the Vietnam war was.